St. Patrick, the runaway slave who brought the Gospel to Ireland

If you live in a city or town with a strong Irish heritage, you know that March 17th won’t be just like any other day. Shamrocks, leprechauns, parades and celebrations sporting green everything will flood the streets. In the United States, we call this day St. Patrick’s Day, in honor of Ireland’s most famous saint. But how much do you actually know about the man behind the holiday?

From stories of Patrick driving snakes off the island to appearing as a deer to slip by his enemies and preach the Gospel, much myth surrounds his life.  There are enough uncertainties about dates and reliable accounts to make it difficult to piece together Patrick’s history, but we do know a little. For one thing, Patrick wasn’t actually Irish. He was Roman! And we know that through him, the Gospel reached Ireland in a counter-cultural way—not by imperial force or an empire’s expansion, but by his patient efforts to win the Irish to Christ in humility and peace.

The world before Patrick

The Romans had invaded Britain long before Patrick’s time—almost fifty years before Jesus was born.  Julius Caesar had been fighting the Celts in his famous Gallic wars. Some had fled to the British Isles, and he went after them twice, but sailed away both times without conquering the islands. In the following century, Emperor Claudius began a permanent conquest in AD 43. By 77, Rome controlled all of the region now known as England, as well as the lower parts of Scotland, building forts and cities at strategic places—forts they tied together with sturdy roads. Among the modern cities they occupied or founded were London, St. Albans, Colchester, York, Chester, Bath, Lincoln, and Gloucester. Unable to control fierce Scots raiders, Emperor Hadrian ordered a wall built across northern England in 122.

Years later, as early as 224 but possibly as late as 415 (traditional dates say 381 or 415), Conchessa—the wife of Calpurnius, a Roman official in Britain—gave birth to Patricius (Patrick). Calpurnius was a Latin-speaking Roman nobleman, magistrate, and possibly a church deacon. His home would have reflected his status. Not much is known about Conchessa, other than she hailed from Gaul (France). Patrick probably grew up on a small farm—in a pleasant Roman-style villa, not the crude hut of a commoner—near a village on the western coast at the far north of Rome’s British holdings. Consequently, he would have been accustomed to a privileged life, complete with servants and significant wealth, but not one without its dangers.  Roman hold on the region was weak, and the neighboring Celts and Picts often attacked it.

By Patrick’s time, Christianity had reached the fringes of the Roman Empire; however, depending on when he actually lived, it may not yet have been embraced as an acceptable religion. In traditional dating, Patrick’s life began well after Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire. Conversely, earlier dates place Patrick’s birth before Christianity’s official toleration, and possibly as a contemporary of St. Alban, who as late as 304, died a martyr at the hand of the Romans. Regardless, Patrick had some knowledge of true faith as a child. As a teenager, Patrick would have known the basics of the faith—even if he cared little for it.

From privileged to powerless

At sixteen years old, Patrick’s life changed forever. Irish raiders swept through his coastal village, taking thousands of slaves and slaying many of the servants in Patrick’s home. They captured Patrick, and an Irish boat called a currach spirited him across the sea and far from home.

Sold as a slave in Ireland, Patrick was forced to tend sheep and pigs. In stark contrast to his previous life, Ireland proved a difficult and unfriendly land. Warring kings ruled the country and battled for resources, with many feared widely for their ferocity and cruelty. The king who had owned Patrick, for instance, displayed the severed heads of his enemies on spikes. Their Celtic paganism—an animistic, polytheistic religion—encouraged this and other barbaric practices, including various types of human sacrifice. Priests called Druids held enormous influence in Celtic culture, since they often advised these kings in legal, historical, and religious matters. Druids also claimed to practice magic and foretell the future.

As Patrick grew into a young man, he toiled as a shepherd, weathering cold, hunger, thirst, and loneliness in an unforgiving wilderness. But at his lowest, Patrick remembered the God he had dismissed in his youth. He began to pray ceaselessly, and though Patrick knew little about God at the time, his simple and burgeoning faith carried him through the years of his captivity.

A daring escape

According to Patrick’s own writings, after six years of slavery he heard a voice telling him he would soon go home and that his ship was ready. Patrick escaped on foot, fleeing two hundred miles to the coast where the ship bound for his homeland waited. After persuading the captain to take him along, getting lost in the British wilderness, and convincing the crew to put their faith in God, Patrick finally returned home.

In the days that followed, Patrick studied Christianity and received formal Bible training, even though he faced strong opposition from his family. He eventually left home, and tradition holds that Patrick committed himself to the Church and later became a bishop. But even as he served the Church, Patrick became increasingly concerned for the Irish. A vision he recorded in his writings states that while at home, he saw a man coming from Ireland, carrying a letter for him entitled, “The Voice of the Irish.” Then he heard the people of Ireland crying out: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk among us.” 

The holy boy returns

With no hesitation, he returned to Ireland to preach the gospel. The hardships he had endured during his previous captivity equipped him for success—Patrick met much opposition, but boldly faced it head-on. It became his common practice to preach first to the king of each Irish domain. Many of the legendary stories and miracles of Patrick that aided in Irish conversion are believed to have taken place during this time, although actual historical evidence does not exist to confirm them.

Regardless of how he did it, Patrick managed to impress each king with the Gospel or was given leniency to teach it to the people. They in turn renounced their gods as demons and served the one true God instead. According to his own writings, Patrick baptized thousands of new believers, resulting in a changed country. By the end of the fifth century, Ireland had a strong pulse as a Christianized nation.

For the remainder of his days, Patrick fought tirelessly for the Irish people and defended them as their spiritual shepherd. When a Brittonic warrior known as Coroticus began raiding Ireland’s coasts, murdering some of the Irish and taking others as slaves, Patrick publicly denounced the influential figure and excommunicated him in an open letter.  It is believed this letter prompted an official trial and investigation of Patrick’s ministry, which he mentions in his Confession. From that confession, we receive a picture of a humble man of God, well aware of his own failings but defending the ministry that brought the Gospel to Ireland.

Patrick died in either 461 or 492/3, according to traditional sources. While popular culture remembers him briefly on the holiday that bears his name, his legacy goes far beyond that. Christian history credits Patrick as the first missionary to Ireland, a stalwart defender of the doctrine of the Trinity, and a shepherd who truly loved the flock God entrusted to him.

Introduce children to the powerful story of St. Patrick with the exciting Torchlighers episode on his life and legacy. Stream this 30-minute animated film or purchase the DVD (includes bonus documentary) on our storefront. Download our free custom study guides on Patrick for lessons focused on the life of another shepherd, David, while leading kids to put their faith in the Good Shepherd, Jesus.